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The 1st Transatlantic Cable and HMS Agamemnon's Near Miss


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In 1857 the British and Americans first attempted to lay a telegraph cable across the North Atlantic, linking Ireland to Newfoundland (and thence to London and New York). The westbound portion of cable was laid by HMS Agamemnon, a First Rate built in 1852 with auxiliary steam power.


A thousand miles of cable were coiled inside the ship like this:

And paid out somewhat like this (different vessel depicted):


There are many good books about this massive and technically daunting undertaking. I'm just here to share an excerpt about a storm where Agamemnon was nearly lost by capsizing for reasons mostly unknown to marine science (and obscure well into the 20th Century).


(emphasis mine)


Our ship, the Agamemnon, rolling many degrees, was labouring so heavily that she looked like breaking up. The massive beams under her upper deck coil cracked and snapped with a noise resembling that of small artillery, almost drowning the hideous roar of the wind as it moaned and howled through the rigging. Those in the improvised cabins on the main deck had little sleep that night, for the upper deck planks above them were “working themselves free,” as sailors say; and, beyond a doubt, they were infinitely more free than easy, for they groaned under the pressure of the coil, and availed themselves of the opportunity to let in a little light, with a good deal of water, at every roll. The sea, too, kept striking with dull heavy violence against the vessel’s bows, forcing its way through hawse holes and ill closed ports with a heavy slush; and thence, hissing and winding aft, it roused the occupants of the cabins aforesaid to a knowledge that their floors were under water, and that the flotsam and jetsam noises they heard beneath were only caused by their outfit for the voyage taking a cruise of its own in some five or six inches of dirty bilge. Such was Sunday night, and such was a fair average of all the nights throughout the week, varying only from bad to worse. On Monday things became desperate.

The barometer was lower, and, as a matter of course, the wind and sea were infinitely higher than the day before. It was singular, but at 12 o’clock the sun pierced through the pall of clouds, and shone brilliantly for half an hour, and during that brief time it blew as it has not often blown before. So fierce was this gust, that its roar drowned every other sound, and it was almost impossible to give the watch the necessary orders for taking in the close reefed foresail. This gust passed, and the usual gale set in now blowing steadily from the south west, and taking us more and more out of our course each minute. Every hour the storm got worse, till towards five in the afternoon when it raged with such a violence of wind and sea that matters, really looked “desperate” even for such a strong and large ship as the Agamemnon. The upper deck coil had strained her decks throughout; and, though this mass, in theory, was supposed to prevent her rolling so quickly and heavily as she would have done without it, yet still she heeled over to such an alarming extent that fears of the coil itself shifting again occupied every mind, and it was accordingly strengthened with additional shores bolted down to the deck. The space occupied by the main coil below had deprived the Agamemnon of several of her coal bunkers; and in order to make up for this deficiency, as well as to endeavour to counterbalance the immense mass which weighed her down by the head, a large quantity of coals had been stowed on the deck aft. On each side of her main deck were thirty five tons, secured in a mass, while on the lower deck ninety tons were stowed away in the same manner. The precautions taken to secure these huge masses also required attention as the great ship surged from side to side. Everything, therefore, was made “snug,” as sailors call it; though their efforts by no means resulted in the comfort which might have been expected from the term. The night passed over without any mischance beyond the smashing of all things incautiously left loose and capable of rolling, and one or two attempts which the Agamemnon made in  the middle watch to turn bottom upwards. In other matters it was the mere ditto of Sunday night; except, perhaps, a little worse, and certainly much more wet below.

Tuesday, the gale continued with unabated force; though the barometer had risen 29.30, and there was sufficient sun to take a clear observation, which showed our distance from the rendezvous to be 563 miles. During this afternoon the Niagara joined company, and, the wind going more ahead, the Agamemnon, took to violent pitching, plunging steadily into the trough of the sea as if she meant to break her back and lay the Atlantic cable in a heap. This change in her motion strained and taxed every inch of timber near the coils to the very utmost. It was curious to see how they worked and bent as the Agamemnon went at everything she met head first. One time she pitched so heavily as to break one of the main‑beams of the lower deck, which had to be shored with screw‑jacks forthwith. Saturday, June 19th, things looked a little better. The barometer seemed inclined to go up and the sea to go down; and for the first time that morning since the gale began some six days previous the decks could be walked with tolerable comfort and security. But, alas! appearances are as deceitful in the Atlantic as elsewhere; and during a comparative calm that afternoon the glass fell lower, while a thin line of black haze to windward seemed to grow up until it covered the heavens with a sombre darkness, and warned us that the worst was yet to come. There was much heavy rain that evening, and then the wind began not violently, nor in gusts, but with a steadily increasing force. The sea was “ready built to hand,” as sailors say; so at first the storm did little more than urge on the ponderous masses of water with redoubled force, and fill the air with the foam and spray it tore from their rugged crests. By and by, however, it grew more dangerous, and Captain Preedy himself remained on deck throughout the middle watch.

At 4 am, sail was shortened to close reefed fore and main topsails and reefed foresail. This was a long and tedious job, for the wind so roared and howled, and the hiss of the boiling sea was so deafening, that words of command were useless; and the men aloft holding on with all their might to the yards as the ship rolled over and over almost to the water were quite incapable of struggling with the masses of wet canvas, that flapped and plunged as if men, yards and everything were going away together. The ship was almost as wet inside as out and so things wore on till 8 or 9 o’clock, everything getting adrift and being smashed, and every one on board jamming themselves up in corners or holding on to beams to prevent their going adrift likewise. At 10 o’clock the good ship was rolling and labouring fearfully, with the sky getting darker, and both wind and sea increasing every minute. Half an hour later three or four gigantic waves were seen approaching the ship, coming slowly on through the mist, nearer and nearer, rolling on like hills of green water, with a crown of foam that seemed to double their height. The Agamemnon rose heavily to the first, and then went down quickly into the deep trough of the sea, falling over in the act, so as to nearly capsize on the port side. There was a fearful crashing as she lay over this way, for everything broke adrift, whether secured or not, and the uproar and confusion were terrific for a minute; then back she came again on the starboard beam in the same manner only quicker and deeper than before. Again, there was the same noise and crashing, and the officers in the ward room, realising the danger, struggled to their feet and opened the door leading to the main deck. The scene, for an instant, defied description. Amid loud shouts and efforts to save themselves, a confused mass of sailors, boys, and marines with deck buckets, ropes, ladders, and every, thing that could get loose, and which had fallen back to the port side were being hurled again in a mass across the ship to starboard. Dimly, and for a moment, could this be seen; and then, with a tremendous crash, as the ship fell over still deeper, the coals stowed on the main deck broke loose, and, smashing everything before them, went over among the rest to leeward. The coal dust hid everything on the main deck in an instant; but the crashing could still be heard going on in all directions, as the lumps and sacks of coal, with stanchions, ladders, and mess tins, went leaping about the decks, pouring down the hatchways, and crashing through the glass skylights into the engine room below.


Matters now became most serious; for it was evident that two or three such lurches and the masts would go like reeds, while half crew might be maimed or killed below. Captain Preedy was already on the poop, with Lieutenant Gibson, and it was “Hands, wear ship” at once; while Mr. Brown, the indefatigable chief engineer was ordered to get up steam immediately. The crew gained the deck with difficulty, and not till after a lapse of some minutes; for all the ladders had been broken away, the men were grimed with coal dust, and many bore still more serious marks upon their faces of how they had been knocked about below. There was great confusion at first, for the storm was fearful. The officers were quite inaudible; and a wild, dangerous, sea running mountains high, heeled the great ship backwards and forwards, so that the crew were unable to keep their feet for an instant, and in some cases were thrown right across the decks. Two marines went with a rush head foremost into the paying out machine, as if they meant to butt it over the side yet, strange to say, neither the men nor the machine suffered. What made matters worse, the ship’s barge, though lashed down to the deck had partly broken loose; and dropping from side to side as the vessel lurched, it threatened to crush any who ventured to pass. The regular discipline of the ship, however, soon prevailed and the crew set to work to wear round the ship on the starboard tack, while Lieutenants Robinson and Murray went below to see after those who had been hurt. The marine sentry outside the ward room door on the main deck had not had time to escape, and was completely buried under the coals. Some time elapsed before he could be got out; for one of the beams had crushed his arm very badly, still lay across the mangled limb jamming it in such a manner that it was found impossible to remove it without risking the man’s life. The timber indeed, to be sawn away before the poor fellow could be extricated. Another marine on the lower deck endeavoured to himself by catching hold of what seemed like a ledge in the planks but, unfortunately, it was only caused by the beams straining apart, and, of course, as the Agamemnon righted they closed again and crushed his lingers flat. One of the assistant engineers was also buried among the coals on the lower deck, and sustained some severe internal injuries. The lurch of the ship was calculated at forty five degrees each way four or five times in rapid succession. The galley coppers were only half filled with soup; nevertheless, it nearly all poured out, and scalded some of those who were extended on the decks, holding on to anything in reach. These with a dislocation, were the chief casualties; but there were others of bruises and contusions, more or less severe, and a long list of escapes more marvellous than any injury. One poor fellow went head first from the main deck into the hold without being hurt; and one on the orlop deck was “chevied” about for some ten minutes by three large casks of oil which had got adrift, and any one of which would have flattened him like a pancake had it overtaken him.

As soon as the Agamemnon had gone round on the other tack the Niagara wore also, and bore down as if to render assistance. She had witnessed our danger, and, as we afterwards learnt, imagined that the upper deck coil had broken loose and that we were sinking. Things, however, were not so bad as that, though they were bad enough, Heaven knows, for everything seemed to have gone wrong that day. The upper deck coil had strained the ship to the very utmost, yet still held on fast. But not so the coil in the main hold. This had begun to get adrift, and the top kept working and shifting over from side to side, as the ship lurched, until some forty or fifty miles were in a hopeless state of tangle, resembling nothing so much as a cargo of live eels.

Going round upon the starboard tack had eased the ship to a certain extent. The crew, who had been at work since nearly four in the morning, were set to clear up the decks from the masses of coal that covered them. About six in the evening it was thought better to wear ship once more and stand by for the rendezvous under easy steam. Her head accordingly was put about and once more faced the storm. As she went round, she of course fell into the trough of the sea again, rolling so awfully as to break her waste steam pipe, filling her engine room with steam, and depriving her of the services of one boiler when it was sorely needed. The sun set upon as wild and wicked a night as ever taxed the courage and coolness of a sailor. There were, of course, men on board who were familiar with gales and storms in all parts of the world; and there were some who had witnessed the tremendous hurricane which swept the Black Sea on the memorable November 14th, when scores of vessels were lost and seamen perished by the thousand. But of all on board none had ever seen a fiercer or more dangerous sea than raged throughout that night and the following morning, tossing the good ship from side to side like a mere plaything among the waters. The night was thick and very dark, the low black clouds almost hemming vessel in; now and then a, fiercer blast than usual drove the great masses slowly aside, and showed the moon, a dim, greasy  blotch upon the sky, with the ocean, white as driven snow, seething like a cauldron. But these were only glimpses, alternated with darkness, through which the waves rushed upon the ship as though they must overwhelm it, and dealing it one staggering blow, went hissing and surging past into the darkness again. The grandeur of the scene was almost lost in its dangers and terrors, for of all the many forms in which death approaches man there is none so easy in fact, so terrific in appearance, as death by shipwreck.

Sleep was impossible that night on board the Agamemnon. Even those in cots were thrown out, from their striking against the vessel’s side as she pitched. The berths of wood fixed athwart ships in the cabins on the main deck had worked to pieces. Chairs and tables were broken, chests of drawers capsized, and a little surf was running over the floors of the cabins themselves, pouring miniature seas into portmanteaus, and breaking over carpetbags of clean linen. Fast as it flowed off by the scuppers it came in faster by the hawse holes and ports, while the beams and knees strained with a doleful noise, as though it was impossible they could hold together much longer. It was, indeed, as anxious a night as ever was passed on board any line of battle ship in Her Majesty’s service. Captain Preedy never left the poop throughout though it was hard work to remain there, even holding on to the poop rail with both hands. Morning brought no change. The storm was as fierce as ever; and whilst the sea could not be higher or wilder, the additional amount of broken water made it still more dangerous to the ship. Very dimly, and only now and then, through the thick scud, the Niagara could be seen one moment on a monstrous hill of water and the next quite lost to view, as the Agamemnon went down between the waves. Even these glimpses showed us that our Transatlantic consort was  plunging heavily, shipping seas, and evidently having a bad time of it. But she got through it better than the Agamemnon, as of course she could. Suddenly it came on darker and thicker, and we lost sight of her in the thick spray, and had only ourselves to look after. This was quite enough, for every minute made matters worse, and the aspect of affairs began to excite serious misgivings in the minds of those in charge. The Agamemnon is one of the finest line of battle ships in the whole navy but in such a storm, and so heavily overladen, what could she do but make bad weather worse, and strain and labour and fall into the trough of the sea, as if she were going down head foremost?

Three or four hours more, and the vessel had borne all she could bear with safety. The masts were rapidly getting worse, the deck coil worked more and more with each tremendous plunge; and, even if both these held, it was evident that the ship itself would soon strain to pieces if the present weather continued. The sea, forcing its way through ports and hawse holes, had accumulated on the lower deck to such an extent that it floated the stoke hole, so that the men could scarcely remain at their posts. Everything was smashing and rolling about. One plunge put all the electrical instruments hors de combat at a blow, and staved some barrels of strong solution of sulphate of copper, which went cruising about, turning all it touched to a light pea green. By and by we began to ship seas. Water came down the ventilators near the funnel into the engine room. Then a tremendous sea struck us forward, drenching those on deck, and leaving them up to their knees in water, and the least versed on board could see that things were fast going to the bad unless a change took place in the weather or the condition of the ship. Of the first there seemed little chance. It certainly showed no disposition to clear on the contrary, livid looking black clouds seemed to be closing round the vessel faster than ever. For the relief of the ship, three courses were open to Captain Preedy one to wear round and try her on the starboard tack, as he had been compelled to do the day before; another, to fairly run for it before the wind; and, the third and last, to endeavour to lighten the vessel by getting some of the cable overboard. Of course the latter would not have been thought of  till the first two had been tried and failed in fact, not till it was evident nothing else could save the ship. Against wearing round there was the danger of her again falling off into the trough of the sea, losing her masts, shifting the upper deck coil, and so finding her way to the bottom in ten minutes; while to attempt running before the storm with such a sea on was to risk her stern being stove in and a hundred tons of water added to her burden with each wave that came up afterwards, till the poor Agamemnon went under them all for ever.

A little after ten o’clock on Monday the 21st the aspect of affairs was so alarming that Captain Preedy resolved at all risks to try wearing the ship round on the other tack. It was hard enough to make the words of command audible, but to execute them seemed almost impossible. The ship’s head  went round enough to leave her broadside on to the seas, and then for a time it seemed as if nothing could be done. All the rolls which she had ever given on the previous day seemed mere trifles compared with her performances then. Of more than 200 men on deck at least 150 were thrown down, falling over from side to side in heaps while others, holding on to ropes, swung to and fro with every heave. It really appeared as if the last  hour of the stout ship had come, and to this minute it seems miraculous that her masts held on. Each time she fell over her main chains went deep under water. The lower decks were flooded, and those above could hear by the fearful crashing audible amid the hoarse roar of the storm that something alarming had happened. It was then found that the coals had, once more got loose below, had broken into the engine room, and were carrying  all before them. During these rolls the main deck coil shifted over to such a degree as to entirely envelope four men, who sitting on the top, were trying to wedge it down with beams. One of them was so much jammed by the mass which came over him that he was seriously confused. He had to be removed to the sick bay, making up the sick list to forty five of  which ten were from injuries caused by the rolling of the ship, and most of the rest  from continual fatigue and exposure during the gale.

Once round on the starboard tack, and it was seen in an instant that the ship was in no degree relieved by the change. Another heavy sea struck her forward, sweeping clean over the fore part of the vessel, and carrying away the woodwork and platforms which had been placed there round the machinery for under running. This and a few more plunges were quite sufficient to settle the matter; and at last Captain Preedy reluctantly succumbed to a storm he could neither conquer nor contend against. Full steam was got on, and, with a foresail and foretopsail to lift her head, the Agamemnon. ran before the wind, rolling and tumbling over the huge waves at a tremendous pace. It was well for all that the wind gave this much way on her, or her stern would certainly have been stove in. As it was, a wave partly struck her on the starboard quarter, smashing the quarter galley and ward‑room windows on that side; and sending such a sea into the ward room itself as to wash two officers off a sofa. This was a kind of parting blow; for the glass began to rise, and the storm was evidently beginning to moderate; and although the sea still ran as high as ever, there was less broken water, and altogether, towards midday, affairs assumed a better and more cheerful aspect. The ward room that afternoon was a study for an artist; with its windows half darkened and smashed, the sea water still slushing about in odd corners, with everything that was capable of being broken strewn over the floor in pieces, and some fifteen or twenty officers, seated amid the ruins, holding on to the deck or table with one hand, while with the other they contended at a disadvantage with a tough meal, the first which most had eaten for twenty four hours. Little sleep had been indulged in, though much lolloping about. Those, however, who prepared themselves for a night’s rest in their berths rather than at the ocean bottom, had great difficulty in finding their day garments of a morning. The boots especially went astray, and got so hopelessly mixed that the man who could “show up” with both pairs of his own was, indeed, a man to be congratulated.

But all things have an end; and this long gale of over a week’s duration at last blew itself out, and the weary ocean rocked itself to rest.

Source: http://atlantic-cable.com/Cables/1857-58Atlantic/

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1 hour ago, SirSamuelHood said:

If I skim-red correctly, the Agamemnon was beset by rogue waves?

Almost. The next ship named Agamemnon (a steam-powered 1st Rate) almost capsized in large waves.

But not rogue waves necessarily, just large waves with very poor timing. When a ship is rising on the crest of a wave, her stability characteristics go all to pot, because the hull has been bodily thrown into the air and if effectively lighter for a split second. In that moment the ship can be blown over or can roll farther than normal, resulting in a feedback loop of extreme rolling that ends in capsize.

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4 hours ago, maturin said:

Almost. The next ship named Agamemnon (a steam-powered 1st Rate) almost capsized in large waves.

But not rogue waves necessarily, just large waves with very poor timing. When a ship is rising on the crest of a wave, her stability characteristics go all to pot, because the hull has been bodily thrown into the air and if effectively lighter for a split second. In that moment the ship can be blown over or can roll farther than normal, resulting in a feedback loop of extreme rolling that ends in capsize.

I recall a passage from one of the O'Brien novels where HMS Surprise was travelling with large and strong waves. Aubrey mentions a condition in which the ship can be 'pooped,' that is, if one of the pursuing waves strike the ship's stern correctly, the ship turns it so that the next wave hits the ship broadside-on, and then that wave and subsequent ones swamp the ship entirely.

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7 minutes ago, SirSamuelHood said:

I recall a passage from one of the O'Brien novels where HMS Surprise was travelling with large and strong waves. Aubrey mentions a condition in which the ship can be 'pooped,' that is, if one of the pursuing waves strike the ship's stern correctly, the ship turns it so that the next wave hits the ship broadside-on, and then that wave and subsequent ones swamp the ship entirely.

That's the usual hazard of a breaking wave capsizing a vessel: it heels over on the slanting face of the wave, then the breaking upper part of the wave slams into the hull like a continuous jet of water.

What happened to Agamemnon was a little more unusual and complex.

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